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Human Concerns in Disaster Recovery And Resiliency

This is the first of a three-part series on human concerns in disaster recovery, by Vali Hawkins-Mitchell:

(Part 1) What: What are Human Concerns

(Part 2) So What: The Risks

(Part 3) Now What: The Applications

What is a Disaster?

Disaster: a sudden, extreme event creating damage, loss, and destruction to life and property. What can be missed entirely is the “disaster inside” the disaster:

  • The employee who was in the middle of a divorce procedure who now must postpone it.
  • The parent who is now hesitant to leave children alone after realizing how short life can be.
  • The boss who showed cowardice during the event now trying to lead the team.
  • The supervisor who has lost good producers.
  • The previously traumatized employee who now is re-traumatized.
  • The individual who now blames responders and responses to cope with their feelings.
  • The company that disavows the time some people take to recover with gung-ho messages.

All of us manage countless challenges at home and work. Some days are easy and others not so much. And challenges can range between zero (an easy nothing) and a ten (the difficult or worst). Everyone has a ten. If your biggest difficulty so far in life was a hangnail, that was your ten. For someone else a ten might be the death of a loved one. It isn’t a contest. One person’s two may be someone else’s ten. Regularly manageable ones and twos can become tens during and after a disaster. For example, managing pets routinely may be a one but during a disaster can turn into a ten. Human Concerns for risk and recovery means there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. Recovery and risk planning should be as equally unique and dynamic as each specific incident and individual’s experience; the full spectrum of human responses possible.

Disasters definition

The definition of a disaster, often stated in terms of destruction, economics, and casualties, doesn’t begin to accurately determine what happens to humans. What is devastating to one person may  be a mere annoyance to someone else. It is essential to not just listen, but to hear humans in duress and to ask them to clarify the specifics of their unique experience without judgment or assumptions. I have found this step missing in “lessons learned” briefings. When the incident is “over” for some, it has only begun for others.

What are Human Concerns?

Human Concerns are those problems and issues that influence the emotional, spiritual, mental, physical, and relational aspects of life. Problems are acute and issues are chronic. For example: A flat tire is a problem, whereas poverty, that makes getting a new tire impossible, is an issue. A problem may be temporary and fixable, but an issue may only be manageable over time.

What comes first?  Job one is Extreme Self-Care.

My introduction to emergency services was on a Tsunami Management Team. New to the field and eager to learn from the pros, I entertained images of rapid and compassionate response teams, cool equipment, maps, graphs, and high-tech gear. However, the very first item of business was:

Ok, reminder for the new people: You hear the sirens and get out of harm’s way. We’ll all meet on __________ Hill Ridge with our families and gear. Locals will head upland and away from the coast, the *&@% tourists will flock in to watch and take photos. When it’s all over we’ll go clean up the mess.

I was stunned. How could professional responders think about themselves first? But that message became a mantra of “put on your own oxygen mask first or you’re no good to anyone.” And no matter how trite that expression may seem, the wisdom remains: Extreme Self-Care is job one.

What is Extreme Self-Care?

Extreme Self-Care means doing more than the basics of your regular regimen of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual activities. Extreme self-care demands you evolve your practices in case you need more when under duress. It’s your Self-Care Go Bag you can turn to during hurricane season, pandemics, wildfires, tsunami, earthquakes, hazmat events, tornadoes, terrorism, active shooters, or space alien zombie invasions. Consider deepening your regimen by expanding these three foundations:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Well-being
  3. Resiliency

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness means paying attention to where you are and what is going on for you in the moment. Although now a multi-billion-dollar industry, the basics of mindfulness simply include:

  1. Being aware.
  2. Focusing on the present moment, while calmly and non-judgmentally noting feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations.
  3. Being present with whatever the experience may be.
  4. Paying attention, but with intention.

Bodies and brains change during emergencies. Mindfulness provides another option to reactions of fight, flight, or freeze: becoming creative in the moment based on that specific moment. A unique moment may necessitate a unique response that has presented itself. If one is aware, options open up. Many survivors of disaster report that it was a quick decision they made in the moment, during critical seconds, that saved them. Practicing mindfulness can help you function better during drills, planning, and actual events.

What is Well-Being?

Well-Being initiatives refer to supporting the large, whole-life, holistic, and complete human experience. Unlike the Wellness movement, now a $3.7 trillion market, Well-Being does not limit itself to physical fitness, health, nutrition, cosmetics, and disease prevention. Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school, suggests Well-Being includes intellectual, emotional, physical, social, spiritual, environmental, and financial attributes. Gallup, the organization that delivers “analytics and advice to help leaders and organization solve their most pressing problems with a global reach,” promotes five essential elements for Well-Being: Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community.

Many companies provide Wellness or Well-Being programs. Extreme Self-Care practices include using and evolving such resources available for your benefit before you need intervention.

What is Resiliency?

Resilience is a learned set of behaviors, thoughts, and actions that provide a defense against stress, challenge, and setbacks. Resiliency doesn’t mean you “bounce back” to your old original shape after a crisis or challenge. There is no bounce backwards. The past is past. However, resiliency means moving forward into the new NOW with new meaning. Resiliency isn’t a contest or a magical thing that happens to some special people. But, it is learnable, a choice, and a personal life-practice. Resiliency doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain, grief or anguish. It means feeling your emotions or feelings, but not dragging victimhood along like paper stuck on your shoe. Resiliency isn’t a false happiness but can direct you forward to a return to joy after duress.

The more Mindful you are of your own self-care processes and what throws you off-track, the more you build your Well-Being, and the more Resilient you become, the more sensitive you will be to the Human Concerns that arise in a disaster. Mindfulness, Well-Being, and Resiliency are accessible processes to find meaning, clarity, and a sense of presence before, during, and after a challenge. And isn’t that what recovery is?

Stay tuned for the next blog – So What: The Risks. What is your why?


About the Author: Dr. Vali Hawkins-Mitchell

Dr. Vali Hawkins-Mitchell is a licensed mental health counselor, trauma and resiliency specialist. She is also a business consultant, well published author, award winning artist, and coach. Currently she is the co-owner of the largest employee assistance program. She also co-owns a physician assistance program in the state of Hawaii and a leading international authority on the role of emotions in the workplace. She holds a PhD in health education, a master’s degree in psychology, and another master’s degree in art therapy.

Dr. Vali is the author of these and other books:

The Cost of Emotions in the Workplace


Manager’s Guide to Bullies in the Workplace: Coping with Emotional Terrorists


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